Va-y’chi concludes the narratives of Genesis by foreshadowing enslavement and redemption — central themes of the Book of Exodus. As the Genesis narrative draws to a close, Joseph and his retinue journeyed from Egypt to Canaan to fulfill Jacob’s bidding that Joseph bury his father in the Tomb of Machpelah, the burial cave purchased by Abraham for his family from the Hittites (Genesis 23:1-20). After fulfilling this promise, the progeny of Jacob returned to their adopted land of Egypt and their comfortable homes and lives.
Later, Joseph made the same request of his children:
'I am dying, but God will surely take care of you and bring you up out of this land to the land that [God] promised to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.' Joseph adjured Israel’s children, saying, 'God will surely take care of you; bring my bones from this place!' Joseph died, aged 110 years old. They embalmed him and he was put into a coffin in Egypt (Genesis 50:24-26).
Fast-forward 430 years to the Israelite’s preparation for the departure from Egypt:
And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying, 'God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you' (Exodus 13:19).
Centuries later, the Rabbis found a lack of drama and ceremony in this scant biblical account. They created an expansive midrash that speculated on what must have occurred as Moses and the Israelites feverishly planned their departure from Egypt. At the very moment that the Israelites were cramming their possessions into sacks, they imagined Moses attempting to fulfill the promise made to Joseph by frantically searching for Joseph’s remains. After a hurried search, Moses learned that the Egyptians had hidden Joseph’s remains in the Nile River, not only to allow the body of this revered leader to consecrate its waters, but also, more importantly, to prevent the Israelites from leaving Egypt because of the promise made to Joseph. Learning of Joseph’s burial in the Nile, Moses raced to its shores and called, “Joseph, Joseph, the time has come in which God swore to redeem Israel, and for the fulfillment of the oath you had Israel swear to you. Israel is waiting for you.” With those words, Joseph’s coffin bobbed up to the surface; Moses retrieved it and took it with him on all his desert wanderings until it could be delivered to and buried in the Promised Land (Deuteronomy Rabbah 11:7; Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 13a-b).
Thus, while the Israelites wandered through the desert, they carried two boxes. One box contained the tablets of the Law and the other contained the bones of Joseph, a rich metaphor for standing at the crossroads of time — honoring the past at the moment that all gaze upon the future.
This account brings to mind the oft-heard comment about carrying “excess baggage,” a phrase that most often refers to the burdens — but which may also refer to the benefits — of past experiences that people carry with them. Individuals bear the weight of their calamities, mishaps, ordeals, and hardships as well as memories of joyous times — no matter where they go. Moses’ search for the bones of Joseph had a positive overtone to it. By carrying around the bones of Joseph, Moses hoped to draw closer to — and be inspired by — his powerful progenitor.
Most individuals need not search for the bones of their ancestors because they are ever present; they are fused to their own bones, and thus can never escape from them. For some, the weight of ancestors’ bones creates an inner tension because the bones are frequently an unwanted burden from which there is no escape; for others, they may be welcomed as a source of comfort and strength. The midrash to this story ends by commenting about the two boxes the Israelites carried during their desert wanderings: Ki-yame zeh kol mah shekatuv bazeh, “this one (Joseph) fulfilled everything written in that one (the Ark).” Thus the unnamed authors of this account viewed the carrying of ancestral remains in a favorable light.
In ancient Israel, as today, children are identified by name as sons or daughters of their parents. To this day, a Jewish child’s Hebrew name still includes ben or bat, the “son or daughter of” so-and-so, thereby linking the child to a cherished chain of family members. Carrying those names is like carrying the bones of Joseph; they empower and strengthen, but they can also overwhelm. Naming children after progenitors affixes the bones, hearts, and souls of beloved ancestors to their descendants. At baby-naming ceremonies, it is common for parents to write a letter to their child that explains who he or she is named after in the hope that a child will embrace the best qualities of antecedents during his or her lifetime. That is how the dead serve the living.
Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce, Ph.D. is senior rabbi emeritus of Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco, and a faculty member of the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning at the University of San Francisco, and the Beyond The Walls: Spiritual Writing Program at Kenyon College. He is the author of Flash of Insight: Metaphor and Narrative in Therapy and other articles, poems, and books.